In the days when such things were rigorously policed by both society mavens and the arbiters of fashion, ladies could enjoy sporting this week’s entry at various lengths—but gentlemen only had one option.
For ladies, they came in cocktail length at 4 to 6 inches, theatre length at 10 to 14 inches, and opera length at 16 to 20 inches; but, a man’s was never longer than four inches. Or at least that’s how the lore goes.
They’re not, as one versed in bygone fashion might reasonably guess, glove lengths—what on earth did you think we meant?—but measures of cigarette holders.
Generally speaking, they’re tubes with a mouthpiece on end; the other accommodates a cigarette. They can be of cheap celluloid or expensive gold, silver, or any substance in between, like ivory, jade, or Bakelite.
Designed in the days before cigarettes came with filters, they prevented tobacco flakes from getting stuck to one’s teeth. For ladies in particular, they kept smoke from getting under wide hat brims and from stinking up expensive hairdos. For everyone, they reduced the likelihood of yellowed teeth and slightly cooled inhaled vapors.
The cigarette holder, above and beyond everything else, expressed the true nature of sophistication. It did not ignore the desire for a nicotine rush and its attendant coarse elements of smoke, ash, and smell but allowed smokers to acknowledge and indulge in it at a civilized remove.
Beyond their practical function, they were a source of style and glamour: Audrey Hepburn’s famous “little black dress” outfit from Breakfast at Tiffany’s was set off by an apparently opera-length cigarette holder that she wielded with kittenish insouciance.
It’s this natural human urge to ornament useful objects that elevates cigarette holders from their mundane purpose and brings them into the theatre of fashion. People who weren’t even alive before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death probably know him by the famous shot of the then-president sitting in a car, one hand lightly on the wheel, a fedora perched on his head—and a gentleman’s-length cigarette holder protruding from a jaunty grin. It’s that extra visual filip that makes the image stand out.
Cigarette holders can also be slightly more complicated, perched on a special ring, thus making them closer to jewelry, though said devices don’t offer the benefits of filtering the smoke. They do, however, keep one’s fingers from yellowing and add a touch of decadence to the proceedings.
Other iconic users, both fictional and real, include Disney’s Cruella DeVil, comedian Phyllis Diller, Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot—better known as Batman’s umbrella-wielding villain, The Penguin, Rosalind Russell as Auntie Mame, comic actress Lucille Ball, and Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
It’s easy to take poetic incense and describe the cigarette holder as a magician’s wand, conjuring glamour; as conductor’s wand, helping a hostess orchestrate social scenes and her guests deliver bon mots with extra punctuation; as a rapier in an aggressive argument; as an antenna gathering transmissions from the muse for an artist having a contemplative cigarette. It’s the sort of accessory that invites the imagination to play, like a silk fan or a pair of cufflinks.
Of course, we’ve long since learned that smoking is bad for you, and no amount of chic style is worth anyone’s health. As a culture, we’ve gone a long distance towards letting go of this particular bad habit. But its accessories, at least, can amuse a collector who specializes in bygone social habits.
Even expensive cigarette holders, such as those that are both vintage and made of precious materials, are generally within a modest realm. A Chinese jade antique version can be had for only $67 (though a higher-grade one might fetch a steep cost over $1,000); most go for $50 or less, even the antiques. Perhaps this just goes to emphasize their ephemeral nature—today the height of fashion, tomorrow gone just like a puff of smoke.
Shannon Watkins is a journalist and writer from Virginia who enjoys baking cookies, reading, watching TV shows and movies, and shameless loafing about.
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